At some point, when you continue to lose in the postseason, your window for success closes, or begins to rapidly narrow. In the case of the Cleveland Indians, it’s fair to question if they will ever break through the postseason wall after another October letdown.
Monday afternoon, the Indians were eliminated from the playoffs. Losing Game 3 of their American League Division Series matchup with the Houston Astros, 11-3, the Indians were demolished and watched their season come to an end in front of their home crowd.
For years, the Indians have been one of the deepest and most talented ballclubs in Major League Baseball.
Their lineup features some of the most fearsome hitters in the sport. Whether it be Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, or Edwin Encarnacion, the Indians have several high-profile individuals in their order. They also have the likes of Yonder Alonso and Yan Gomes. Heck, they even traded for Josh Donaldson six weeks ago; their lineup was stacked this season.
The same goes for their starting rotation. With Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and Trevor Bauer in the fold, the Indians have one of the games most lethal starting staffs. The Achilles heel for the Indians was their bullpen. Cody Allen recorded a 4.70 ERA, Andrew Miller struggled and was placed on the disabled list multiple times, Tyler Olson and Dan Otero had uncharacteristic seasons, and, as a whole, the Indians pen was 25th in ERA (4.60).
With Miller and Allen hitting the open market this offseason, the Indians could potentially be in need of several relievers to provide depth to their pen, while also having to find upgrades from the outside. With that said, if the Indians sign two or three proven relievers and retain Brantley (who will also be a free agent this offseason), they would be the overwhelming favorites to win the American League Central for a fourth consecutive season.
One year ago, the Minnesota Twins looked like a young team on the rise after winning 85 games and making it to the American League Wild Card Game. But they finished 78-84 in 2018 and fired manager Paul Molitor after the season. The Detroit Tigers have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons and have shown limited signs of progress. The Chicago White Sox have some intriguing young players, but they finished 2018 with 100 losses. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals finished with the second-worst record in the sport (58-104). Chances are no team outside of the Indians will present a playoff caliber ballclub next season, barring a captivating offseason.
Is the Indians’ offensive inconsistency to blame for their continued inability to find sustained success in the playoffs? Kluber’s inability to shine in the big moment? Their pen imploding? Has Terry Francona hit a managerial wall?
If their pen performed like it did last season, the Indians likely still would have lost to the Astros in the ALDS. The Astros make minimal mistakes in the field, are a decisive bunch, have a formidable pitching staff from top-to-bottom, and can run up the scoreboard if you’re not careful; the Indians learned the latter the hard way in Game 3. When you can’t get the big hit, your ace can’t give you quality outings, and your pen is a mess, you’re not going to fare well in October.
Despite the big-impact bats in their order, the Indians scored just six runs and totaled 13 hits against the Astros. Sure, the Astros have a dynamite pitching staff, but for a lineup of the Indians’ caliber to lay that large of an egg when it matters most is unfathomable. To top things off, Kluber wet the bed in another postseason outing, surrendering four runs and three home runs in Game 1, and the Indians pen finished with an abysmal 11.70 postseason ERA; the difference one year can make is remarkable.
What’s next for the Indians? If and when they win the AL Central in 2019, they’ll be right back where they were this year playing in the ALDS. But what opponent can they overcome in a five- or seven-game series? The Astros? They handled the Indians this season and can only get better with age. The Yankees? They pulled off a comeback with their backs against the wall versus the Indians last season and are a better team today than they were a year ago. The Boston Red Sox? They’re a force to be reckoned with, coming off a 108-win season and a convincing ALDS series win against the Yankees. And the Oakland Athletics, although they lost the AL Wild Card Game to the Yankees and may lose some vital pieces to their 2018 success in free agency, finished with 97 wins this season; they were also 4-2 against the Indians. The Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners finished with 90 and 89 wins.
There’s a case to be made that the Indians are the fifth- or sixth-best team in the American League, considering how the Rays are one of the youngest and most improving ballclubs in the sport. Their division can keep them safe through September, but days into the postseason, the Indians will be poised for another first-round exit. They’ve become the AL version of the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals won the National League East four times in the last seven seasons and had the best record in the NL twice, but they were never able to escape the NLDS. All the talent was there from their pitching staff to the bottom of their lineup, just like the Indians. Now, the Indians are experiencing what it’s like to miss your championship window and watch other powerhouses emerge. The Indians have been one of the best teams in the sport, in general, in the second half of the current decade. But for a second consecutive season, they won’t be competing in the American League Championship Series.
The Indians do have some players who could further blossom in the near-future. Lindor is still just 24 and could perhaps have an MVP-caliber season in 2019. Ramirez is still 26 and one of the best third basemen in the sport. But the Indians, as a whole, are a team with little upside; their success will be dependent on internal consistency and management pulling off some blockbuster transactions.
In 2016, the Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series to the Chicago Cubs with the last two games of the series being played in Progressive Field. The ensuing year, the Indians blew a 2-0 lead to the Wild Card-seeded Yankees in the ALDS. This season, the Indians were outplayed from all aspects and swept by the Astros in the first round.
The Indians are a talented ballclub; there was reason to believe that they could be a World Series sleeper this October. But after their first-round series loss, they may never be able to win the AL Pennant again, or redeem themselves. There’s been no sign that they will ever break through, win the pennant again, and/or win the Fall Classic. The Indians missed their chance. And it’s a tough pill that they’re forced to swallow.